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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Painting and Pet Peeves

A few days ago my neighbor and I took a break from the exterior stone work on his house to redo the interior walls of his bedroom.

We removed layers of pink and turquoise wallpaper down to the plaster. (I was told the doors, now an off-white, were bright yellow when he moved in.) The idea was to paint the room a simple bright white as, facing north, it can be quite dark.

Christopher opened his new tub of paint and we looked at it aghast. Mind you, I'd been previously warned how bad the paint can be here, and how brutally expensive nonetheless. This looked like milky water with a dollop of white resting on the bottom. Despite prolonged stirring, the watery mix dripped off the wall without any pretext at concealment. Chris looked at me in despair. However, I had a solution.

I possessed a 15-litre container (roughly 4 American gallons) of what I was told was the best French paint, Dulux Valentine, for 100 euros (about $150.00). Thus far, I'd used it on two small walls in the kitchen and a bit of the bathroom so I had most of it left. Christopher retrieved it from my house while I entertained Tilly, my 11-week-old puppy. I'd brought her because she has exhibited real separation anxiety issues and will yowl for hours on end if I have the temerity to leave her home while I go next door to work. You can hear her yowling through the closed windows. It's heartbreaking. Okay, okay, she's got me completely wrapped around her paws and she knows it.

Anyway, it wasn't long before we were back at work, me up on a ladder doing the brush work along the trim while Chris eagerly slapped the roller over the walls. Unnoticed by me, Chris had slopped a large blob of paint atop the flattened cardboard we were using in lieu of a drop cloth. Unnoticed, that is, until I descended the ladder.

I gasped as I looked at the blob in horror. Tiny white paw prints led straight from it to the bedroom door, beyond into the kitchen and out of sight. Now it was my turn to howl.

"Oh, my God, she's walked through the paint!" Chris immediately said not to worry; it would clean up easily.

"But where is she?" I cried. I envisioned sweet little white paw marks drying on his dark chocolate brown sofa...or worse.

Fortunately, Tilly's penchant for brushes and brooms meant she'd only gotten as far as the tiled kitchen, pausing by the fireplace to steal the dustpan broom Christopher uses to sweep the ashes from his wood-burning fireplace. As we burst into the room, she sat contentedly by the fire chewing the sooty bristles, ignoring us as her paws gripped the handle, contrasting a gleaming white. "Blanc satin luminieux" to be precise.

Well, at least she hadn't licked her feet.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Madame Vitesse

There was recently a bit of excitement on our otherwise sedate street outside the village of Martizay.

Emil, a neighbor, is an elderly stone mason of substantial repute. At age 72, he's often seen scrambling across his roof with no safety equipment, and is currently single-handedly building an addition to his house, cutting each and every stone by hand. This is when he's not tending his massive garden, often sharing the bounty with my other neighbor Christopher or me, as well as his ongoing advice regarding the stonework Christopher's doing on his house.

I was taking a brief break from my mortar work to make Chris and me some coffee when I crossed Emil's path. He was doubled over, clearly in pain. When I reached him, I saw blood dripping down his hand past his wrist. To my horror I saw he'd virtually severed his left index finger. The bone was exposed a quarter-inch, the flesh neatly chewed off on all sides halfway down.

I called for Christopher as Danielle, Emil's wife, emerged from the house sobbing, bandage in hand. We quickly wrapped the finger and I raced home for my car keys; Danielle was clearly in no shape to drive. When I pulled my car up, I was horrified to see Emil removing the bandage to show some of the neighbors. I shouted at him to stop but it turned out it was a good thing--one man raced off and returned moments later with a huge bag of ice. Christopher got Emil and Danielle into the backseat and jumped in beside me. The street was lined with neighbors by this point (talk about bad news traveling fast!) as we flew by, heading for the emergency room in Le Blanc 20 kilometers away.

Mercifully, the road to Le Blanc is mostly straight and does not meander through frequent villages as most roads do. I haven't driven this fast since I was on Germany's autobahn. We hit over 160 kph (100 mph) on this 70-kph/44-mph route and I knew in my bones we were going to be pulled over for speeding. We were. A policeman stepped out into the road, his expression incredulous, and waved us in angrily. I'd already been rehearsing what I might say in my limited French, fingers clenching the steering wheel. I called out, "L'amputation. Son doigt." One look at Emil hunched over a bag of ice, bloody bandage visible, was enough for him to step back and wave us on. God bless him. We took off.

Moments later we roared into Le Blanc. Thankfully Christopher knew precisely where the hospital was and I found I could even follow Danielle's directions in French despite the stress of the moment.

Christopher and I got a coffee, sat outside and then took a short walk into the village to burn off our anxious energy. When we returned, we were told that they would reattach Emil's finger. Danielle appeared, almost cheerful in her relief. We took her home. On the way, she nicknamed me "Mme. Vitesse" or "Madame Speed." The nurse had told her that it was only because we arrived so quickly that they would be able to reattach the finger.

Reattach it they did. Emil was discharged the very next morning and Danielle brought him home. He was immediately out in the garden harvesting bunches of grapes, peaches and tomatoes to gift us, returning a second time with a huge bucket of walnuts. I alternately thanked and scolded him, saying he should rest his hand. He smiled. Later we heard him outside working again. Christopher and I looked at each other in disbelief.

It remains to be seen whether the surgery will be a success. Chris has since spotted Emil carrying a weighty bucket in his heavily bandaged left hand. But for now Emil seems to delight in showing everyone how a mere severed finger won't slow a Frenchman down.

Christopher says if construction doesn't work out for me, I might have a career as an ambulance driver.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Is There a Construction Site Career in My Future?

For once I finally have a viable excuse for neglecting my blog so shamefully. I've got a new job--of sorts.

The day of my last post a month ago, my neighbor Christopher suggested perhaps we would both make better progress on our houses if we worked together, a barter system of work hours. He's been pointing the exterior of his house for months now and I can't begin to imagine how tedious it's been working alone. I would have quite given up in despair long ago.

For those of you unfamiliar with pointing (as I was), it consists of drilling out most of the existing mortar between the stones and replacing it with new. In this case, a rendering or top coat of stucco completely conceals the stone and must be chipped off before the pointing can begin.

This photo is of the far end of Christopher's house. The upper right portion of the photo is the original condition of the house. Below it the rendering has been removed and it's awaiting new mortar between the stones. On the left, running down the length of the house where the stone is less apparent is the finished product--new mortar has been applied, scraped off when partially dry and then, when completely hard, the stones have been burnished with a wire brush to remove any stray bits of mortar and whiten up the limestone block.

Christopher's and my houses were once all part of the same farm, his being the main farmhouse. In fact, the elderly farmer who was born in that house and grew up there still comes by occasionally to see the progress Christopher's making on 'his' house. He's an extremely nice man, this farmer, and was one of the first villagers to attempt to engage me in conversation. He was passing by while I was doing an archaeological dig of sorts in the garden--I knew there were plants buried in there somewhere! At the time I didn't know he once owned my house as well as most of the other buildings on my street. The entire street was apparently part of the farm once upon a time. (My house, I'm told, was built some time before 1850.)

But I digress. Christopher's tentative suggestion that I help him out was received with far more enthusiasm than he'd expected. I want to expose some of the stone wall in my living room interior so this would no doubt be an excellent introduction to what would be involved.

The work has proved far more exhausting than I'd anticipated but I find I enjoy it nonetheless. I man the cement mixer (not so unlike the commercial Hobart in my sister's former bakery), making up the mortar or chaux blanche of wet sand, lime chalk and water. I then wheel barrows of it to the scaffolding where I either hoist buckets up a ladder alongside the scaffolding to where Christopher is working or, if he's near the roof line, tie the buckets to rope and he hauls them up.

I did manage to overdo it while trying my hand at the jackhammer drill (it chips the rendering off to reveal the stones beneath) and strained my wrist but I think my biceps are starting to rival Michelle Obama's!

Here you can see the stones awaiting re-mortaring on the bottom; on the top is the finished product.

Mornings are now spent pointing while afternoons we switch to building a garden wall with all the extra stone lying about the farm. We fill the core of the wall with all the rubble from the rendering, a great way to clean up and recycle!

It's my hope that once Christopher sets a price on the two rooms he owns that abut my house that I can afford to buy them. Then we'll really have a renovation job on our hands as they're nothing more than stone shells. I envision them as a future kitchen and dining room.

In the meantime, perhaps we can collaborate on a new book: Pointers on Pointing!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

I Have a New Roommate!

Not quite two weeks ago, a friend asked me to accompany her to someone's home in nearby Cussay to see a litter of puppies. She was considering adopting a dog. I was to come to prevent her from making any impulse mistakes. (And she wanted ME for this job?)

Our first indication of danger upon arrival was the sight of the litter's father: a pure white Coton du Tulear, the breed of dog my friend and I had both fallen in love with when we housesat two of them out in Veyrier-du-Lac, a lakeside home in the French Alps. (It is those two dogs whose picture graces the home page of my blog, soon now to be replaced.) The mother was tiny, sweet-tempered, and the color of ashes; a terrier of some sort.

The danger became full-blown when the puppies emerged from beneath a wardrobe. There were three and the family intended to keep just one, a pale apricot-colored female. My friend would have to choose between the remaining male and female puppies, just seven weeks old at this point. I turned to her and said, "We're in serious trouble here." I knew that whichever one she didn't choose was coming home with me.

My friend chose the male and I was delighted. I was secretly favoring the female which had lovely charcoal and café au lait markings on her; her brother was completely white.

This past Tuesday we returned to bring them home. We are hopelessly besotted. My friend called hers Finlay, or Finn for short, and promptly christened my little one Tilly. The name stuck. No question it suits her.